Unity And Strife In The Hellenic World, 500-336 B.C.

The leaders of the Greek economic and cultural revival after 750 B.C. were the Ionian Greeks, descendants of the Mycenaeans who had fled the Dorian invaders and settled the Aegean coast of Asia Minor and its offshore islands.

Influenced by contacts with Phoenician traders (from whom they borrowed the alphabet in the eighth century B.C.), neighboring Lydia, and Egypt, the Ionians "first kindled the torch of Hellenism."

They were also the first Greeks to face the threat of the great powers of the Near East.

[See Greek Alliances: Greek political alliances about 431 BC]

The Persian Wars

When the Persians conquered Lydia in 547 B.C., they also annexed Ionia, which had been under nominal Lydian rule.

Chafing under Persian-appointed tyrants, the Ionian cities revolted in 449 B.C., established democratic regimes, and appealed to the Athenians, who were also Ionians, for aid.

Athens sent twenty ships, but to no avail. By 494 B.C. Darius I had crushed the revolt, burning Miletus in revenge.

Darius knew that Ionia was insecure as long as Athens remained free to incite its kin to revolt, and thus in 490 B.C. a Persian force about 20,000 strong sailed across the Aegean and debarked on the plain of Marathon near Athens.

Darius' aim of forcing the Athenians to accept the exiled son of Pisistratus as a pro-Persian tyrant was frustrated when the Athenian army, half the size of the Persian, won an overwhelming victory, killing 6400 of the foe while losing only 192.

The battle of Marathon was one of the most decisive in history.


It destroyed the belief in Persian invincibility and demonstrated, in the words of the Greek historian Herodotus, that "free men fight better than slaves."

The victory also gave the Athenians the self-confidence that would soon make their city the leading Greek state.

Ten years later the Greeks were well prepared for a new Persian invasion under Xerxes, Darius' successor, whose objective was the subjection of all of Greece. Athens now had 200 ships, the largest fleet in Greece, and Sparta had agreed to head a defensive alliance of thirty-one states.

The Persian army - reckoned by Herodotus at 1,700,000 but more likely

150,000 or so - was too huge to be transported by ship.

Crossing the swift-flowing, mile-wide Hellespont near Troy on two pontoon bridges - a notable feat of engineering - the army marched along the Aegean coast accompanied by a great fleet carrying provisions.

The Spartans wanted to abandon all of Greece except the Peloponnesus to the invaders but finally agreed to a holding action at the narrow pass of Thermopylae.

Here 300 Spartans and a few thousand other Greeks held back the Persians for three days, until a Greek traitor led them over a mountain path to the rear of the Greek position.

The Spartans fought magnificently until all were slain, together with 700 other Greeks. The Spartan dead were immortalized on a monument erected at the pass: "Go tell the Spartans, you who pass us by, that here, obedient to their laws, we lie."

The Persians then burned Athens, whose inhabitants had fled, for they placed their faith in "wooden walls" - their fleet.


Their faith was not misplaced; in the Bay of Salamis the Greek fleet, largely Athenian, turned the tide of victory with the shout: "On, sons of the Greeks! Set free your country, set your children free, your wives, the temples of your country's gods, your fathers' tombs; now they are all at stake." ^7

With 200 of his 350 ships destroyed and his lines of communication cut, Xerxes had no alternative but to retreat to Asia, although he left a strong force in Greece.

The following summer (479 B.C.) the Greek army, with the Spartan contingent in the vanguard, routed the Persian force at Plataea, and Greece was for the time being safe from invasion.

[Footnote 7: A. R. Burn, trans., The Pelican History of Greece (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1966), p. 186.]

Culmination Of Athenian Democracy

The part they played in the Greek victory over the mighty Persian empire exhilarated the Athenians and gave them the confidence and energy that made them the leaders of the Greek world during the remainder of the fifth century B.C.

During this period, known as the Golden Age of Greece, the Athenians "attempted more and achieved more in a wider variety of fields than any nation great or small has ever attempted or achieved in a similar space of time." ^8

[Footnote 8: C. E. Robinson, Hellas: A Short History of Ancient Greece (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955), p. 68.]

For more than thirty years (461-429 B.C.) during this period, the great

statesman Pericles guided Athenian policy.


In Pericles' time the actual executive power no longer resided in the archons who were chosen by lot, but in a board of ten elected generals.


This board operated much like a modern-day governmental cabinet. The generals urged the popular assembly to adopt specific measures, and the success or failure of their policies determined whether they would be reelected at the end of their annual term.


Pericles failed of reelection only once, and so great was his influence on the Athenians that, in the words of the contemporary historian Thucydides, "what was in name a democracy was virtually a government by its greatest

citizen." ^9

[Footnote 9: Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War 2.65.]

To enable even the poorest citizen to participate in government, Pericles

extended payment to jurors (a panel of 6000 citizens chosen annually by lot) and to members of the council.

While his conservative opponents called this political bribery, Pericles insisted that it was essential to the success of democracy:

  • Athenian Society
  • The majority of the inhabitants of Athens, however, were not recognized as citizens.

    Women, slaves, and resident aliens were denied citizenship and had no voice in the government.

    Legally, women were first the property of their fathers, then of their husbands.

    They could not possess property in their own name, or, as the law expressly stated, "make a contract about anything worth more than a bushel of barley."

    Athens was distinctly a man's world.

    A wife's function was to bear children and manage the home, where she was restricted to the women's quarters when her husband entertained his friends.

    Men did not marry until they were about thirty, and they usually married girls half their age.

    Marriages were normally arranged by the families, and prospective brides and bridegrooms seldom met before their betrothal.

    Families were rather small, and infanticide, usually by exposure, of unwanted infants (especially girls) was practiced as a primitive form of birth control. The average life expectancy was little more than thirty years.

    Athenian society sanctioned a double moral standard, and the philandering of a husband was not the occasion for adverse public comment.


    A peculiar institution, catering to the needs and desires of upper-class Athenian males, was that of the "companions" (hetaerae).


    These females were normally resident aliens and therefore not subject to the social restrictions imposed on Athenian women.


    A few of the hetaerae, such as Aspasia, the mistress

    of Pericles, were cultivated women who entertained at salons frequented by Athenian political and cultural leaders.

    Generally speaking, however, champions of the social emancipation of Athenian women were rare, and the women themselves accepted their status.

    Aside from a few cases in which wives murdered their husbands (usually by poison), married life seems to have been stable and peaceful.

    Attic gravestones in particular attest to the love spouses felt for one another.

    The tie to their children was strong, and the community set high store by the honor owed by sons and daughters to their parents.

    Male homosexuality is frequently pictured on Athenian vases and mentioned in literature.

    Socially acceptable was "boy love," a homosexual relationship between a mature man and a young boy just before the youth attained puberty.

    This relationship was viewed as pedagogicala rite of initiation into adult society.

    Like initiation rites in general, it contained a strong element of humiliation.

    Adult male homosexuality and homosexual prostitution, however, were not socially acceptable.

    Such relationships were looked upon as "contrary to nature," and the Athenian government issued stringent legal prohibitions against them.

    No ancient society did without slaves, although their importance is often overstated; almost everyone, free as well as slave, had to work for a living.

    In fifth-century Athens it is estimated that one out of every four persons was a slave.

    Some were war captives, others were children of slaves, but most came from outside Greece through slave dealers.

    No large slave gangs were employed on plantations, as they were in Roman times and in the American South before the Civil War. Small landowners owned one or more slaves, who worked in the fields alongside their masters.

    Those who owned many slavesone rich Athenian owned a thousandhired them out to private individuals or to the state where they worked beside Athenian citizens and received the same wages.

    Other slaves were taught a trade and set up in business. They were allowed to keep one sixth of their wages, and many of them were able to purchase their freedom.

    Although a few voices argued that slavery was contrary to nature and that all people were equal, the Greek world as a whole agreed with Aristotle that some people - non-Greeks in particular - were incapable of full human reason; thus they were by nature slaves who needed the guidance of a master.